Meet Jim Stegner: mid-40s, a fly-fisherman, painter and killer.
He is the masculine protagonist in Peter Heller’s new novel, The Painter. The opening line is masterful and captures our attention-- 45-year-old Jim reflects, “I never imagined I would kill a man.” From then on, Heller holds us until the very last sentence.
On his way to fish one afternoon, Stegner kills a man for beating a horse. Living low with an air-tight alibi from his lover and model, Sophie, he bursts forth with a new body of work for his Santa Fe gallerist to sell. Stegner's psychological tension as he is questioned and stalked by revenge seekers and detectives is the undercurrent that flows through Heller’s beautiful prose.
Tormented by his guilt over not preventing his own daughter’s death, Stegner cannot out-fish or out-paint the memories of their last exchange. Stegner’s tumultuous state of mind can range from quiet contentment, as he casts about along a secluded mountain stream, to violent deadly outbursts at perceived injustices.
Heller, like Stegner, is a "man’s man," as reflected in his rock solid prose, although one minor complaint is that he represents Sophie as more of a fetish than a fully developed character. Still, whether you read this novel for the plot or appreciate it for poetic insights into the human condition, either way, you’ll be glad you did.